Drones and dealers: Monitoring artifact looters in Jordan

By Kathleen Ferraro

At an ancient cemetery in Jordan, the last thing you’d expect to see in the sky above is a neon model airplane with a GoPro strapped to its front.

But for Chicago archaeologist Morag Kersel, this bird’s eye view gives her new insights for her research.

Kersel, an anthropology professor at DePaul University, has been using drones to survey and monitor a Bronze Age burial site at Fifa, in southern Jordan. Her research documents the landscape’s change over time and monitors looting at the site. It is also introducing drones into the world of archaeology, as she discussed Sunday at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C.

“Drones are proving to be powerful new tools for archaeologists  documenting excavations, mapping landscapes and identifying buried features,” Kersel said. “They also can be applied to monitor site destruction and looting in the present.”

Kersel has spent the past three years on the Dead Sea Plain in Jordan documenting and monitoring the “ravaged” landscape of Fifa. The 5,000-year-old burial site resembles a lunar landscape. Looters’ holes leading to ancient tombs litter the dirt. Broken artifacts and skeletal remains pepper the earth, according to the team’s archaeological methods webpage.

An image of Fifa taken by a drone, capturing the looters' holes that litter the landscape. (Chad Hill)
An image of Fifa taken by a drone, capturing the looters’ holes that litter the landscape. (Chad Hill)

Kersel said her research tracks the anthropogenic—manmade—changes in Fifa’s landscape over time. Since she’s using drones to track these changes, her research has become an experiment in the effectiveness of these aerial robots as an archaeological tool.

Archaeologists have used aerial technologies for decades. Satellite imaging, or using satellite pictures to assess a site from on high, is one popular technique. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are fairly new to the field: an “increasingly common … emerging technology,” according to specialists at the Aerial Digital Archaeological and Preservation, an independent research group.

"Quadcopter" used by Kersel to monitor Fifa by air. (Morag Kersel)
“Quadcopter” used by Kersel to monitor Fifa by air. (Morag Kersel)

Looters digging holes throughout Fifa in search of untouched tombs and grave goods constitute many of the changes Kersel observes. Looters, typically migrant workers in the area, steal pots from the gravesites, selling the ceramic antiquities to dealers. Dealers then sell the artifacts in myriad places, including eBay (who only buy verified antique pots), Kersel said. Prices range from around $50 to nearly $200, she said.

Kersel passes on information about looting to Jordan’s Department of Antiquities and other local nonprofits on a regular basis, working in close contact with Jordanian institutions throughout the research process. Armed with these insights, local authorities develop preservation policies—outreach programs or stationing guards at the looting sites, for instance.

Chad Hill, research scientist at the University of Connecticut and mastermind behind the project’s UAVs, builds and pilots the drones used above Fifa to collect hundreds, even thousands of images from unique angles.

A 2015 raw 3D model of Fifa. (Morag Kersel)
A 2015 raw 3D model of Fifa. (Morag Kersel)

Hill then take these images and stitches them together, generating a comprehensive, high-resolution overview of the site. Hill can also adapt these images into 3D models.

“We wanted to see what we were missing, and using drones allows us to get much closer with much better resolution,” Kersel said. “It also allows us to choose where we want the drone to fly. Satellite imagery you’re stuck with whatever angle the satellite takes the image from. So were more autonomous in our choices.”

Drone images are especially necessary at Fifa given the low resolution of satellite images in the area.

And Kersel’s research goes far beyond aerial surveying. She’s spent years conducting ethnographic research—immersive, on-the-ground exploration—about looters, dealers, collectors and locals connected to Fifa. In this way, she analyzes changes in the landscape based on human sources and perspectives.

“It’s a pretty holistic approach, because we’re not only doing the drone work, the pedestrian survey of the site and the mapping, but we’re doing ethnographies with the people who have any interaction with the site,” she said. “That’s my job, is to speak with them and figure out how they interact with the site, whether it’s negatively or positively. And what they’re doing with the material. And how the artifacts are going from the ground to the consumer.”

Kersel’s experimentation with drone imagery could be a precursor to more widespread archaeological drone usage in the future.

“If you have the permission of the country where you work and you can use drones, they’re really helpful for all kinds of things,” she said. “[Drones] have really revolutionized archaeology in the last five to 10 years.”

Yorke Rowan, senior research associate at University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, agreed.

Kersel and Jehad Darweesh, representative from the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. (Morag Kersel)
Kersel and Jehad Darweesh, representative from the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. (Morag Kersel)

“These are amazing tools, and I think its fair to call it something of a ‘revolution.’ The multi-rotors in particular are becoming useful for getting good photographic coverage of a site, and the technology is becoming one that many people can learn,” he said. “Two things that have made this an amazing technological breakthrough is the improvement of camera technology and the software available for processing the photos.”

Revolutionary technology aside, Kersel emphasized that her aerial and ethnographic research would not be possible without Jordanian support.

“For us one of the main things is that this is really collaborative with people on the ground in Jordan, and we couldn’t do it without them,” Kersel said. “We’re really just trying to test a method that maybe people can use in other areas of the world where they have permission to use UAVs.”

Photo at top: Research scientist Chad Hill holding a drone ready for flight at Fifa, Jordan. (Morag Kersel)